First, allow me to commend the Government and people of Bangladesh for their sustained efforts, since the crisis of 2017, to provide relief and refuge to members of the Rohingya community who fled persecution in Myanmar, and continue to flee – even as we speak.
Three years since the mass exodus of Rohingya civilians from Myanmar, their future looks as uncertain as ever.
In 2019, the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar reaffirmed what I had witnessed firsthand during my visits to the camps in Cox’s Bazar in 2017 and 2018, where women and girls still bore visible scars from the sexual violence they had endured. The report concluded that: “Rape and sexual violence are part of a deliberate strategy to intimidate, terrorize or punish a civilian population, and are used as a tactic of war.”
Today, the response of Bangladesh to the Rohingya displacement crisis is at an inflection point. While ultimately, the solution to the plight of the Rohingya lies in Myanmar with repatriation remaining a priority solution promoted by Bangladesh, Myanmar appears unwilling to create the conditions needed to encourage refugees to return and repatriations efforts have stalled.
Today more than ever before, the international community must not only maintain support for refugees and their host communities but must also expand the search for solutions in order to alleviate the suffering of the Rohingya population and the overall pressure on Bangladesh.
Our collective efforts must be directed to ensuring the dignity and well-being of the Rohingya today, as well as preserving their hopes and improving prospects for their futures. This means working towards lasting solutions not only in Myanmar itself, but also through study and work opportunities outside of countries of asylum, and third-country pathways for those with the most acute vulnerabilities, including victims of sexual violence.
Repatriation and lasting peace will not be possible without concerted efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice, remove implicated individuals from positions of command responsibility and power, and build public trust in national institutions.
Although the pace of international justice is painfully slow, there are now multiple proceedings and mechanisms aimed to address these crimes. The ICJ case illustrates how inventiveness may hold the key to moving forward in an increasingly difficult environment for justice and accountability globally.
The recent testimony at The Hague of two Tatmadaw soldiers who fled Myanmar openly confessing to taking part in atrocities against Rohingya civilians shows that denial is no longer an option. Silence is no longer an option. Furthermore, last week Tatmadaw soldiers publicly confessed to gang-raping a 37-year-old woman from Rakhine. It is clearly time for the Government of Myanmar to show the world that they are able to address the crimes of the past and prevent their recurrence in future.
Beyond individual and state accountability, the Fact-Finding Mission recommends the international community embargo Myanmar business interests and impose targeted sanctions against companies tied to the Tatmadaw as this could serve to cut off financial and other support for Myanmar’s armed forces.
Indeed, at an individual level, there may be options to impose sanctions against military officers and their family members residing abroad. The United States has already imposed financial sanctions and visa restrictions on top military leaders and units linked to serious human rights abuses. At this critical juncture, we need the sustained commitment of the international community to hold the perpetrators of these atrocities to account.
Since 2018, the Tatmadaw has been listed by the Secretary-General in the annual report on conflict-related sexual violence, as being credibly suspected of having committed patterns of sexual violence. The Government of Myanmar is accordingly required to adopt measures, as set out in the 2018 Joint Communiqué signed with my Office, to bring perpetrators to justice, including members of the military at all levels. While Joint Communiqués provide a framework for national accountability and reform, regrettably, the Tatmadaw is yet to take any meaningful measures to prevent or address these violations, pursuant to this agreement.
In Myanmar and Bangladesh, women and girls face heightened risks of trafficking and sexual exploitation. In Bangladesh, the recent lockdown measures imposed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have adversely affected protection and response efforts, including access to “women-friendly spaces” and gender-based violence case management. COVID-19 should not allow the survivors – or their needs and rights – to be forgotten. Now more than ever, the international community must support refugee-receiving countries to ensure that services, protection, and redress are provided, and to support efforts to re-settle the most vulnerable.
Given the ripple effects for the wider region, ASEAN could play an enhanced role in encouraging cooperation and supporting the Government of Myanmar to create conditions conducive to peace and inclusive democracy. This is particularly urgent ahead of the national elections scheduled for November.
The Rohingya crisis enters its fourth year at a time of unprecedented global disruption caused by a worldwide pandemic that has devastated lives, healthcare systems, economies and societies. Despite these turbulent times, the international community must stand in solidarity with the survivors of grave international crimes to ensure access to justice and redress, which is foundational for recovery, reintegration and peace. Although justice has been delayed, it must not be denied, particularly to a community that has been described as “one of the most persecuted people on earth”.